Last week a reader asked if we had any good recipes for winter salads with wheat berries. So when I tasted this fresh and sweet, tangy and crispy wheat berry salad from a local chef, I had to ask for the recipe! This is a perfect salad for winter lunches, office potlucks, and holiday parties.
I went to a class at my local market (the North Market here in Columbus, Ohio) taught by a local chef, Johnny Dornback of Basi Italia. Johnny's restaurant is a jewelbox of a space, tiny and cozy, tucked away off a side street in a historic neighborhood. His food is primarily Italian-inspired, but with a modern and Mediterranean flair. He served this salad at the class and I just had to make it at home.
Wheat berries are an excellent base for a winter salad. They are wheat grains with the husk removed but the rest of the berry left intact. They are quite firm, and they take quite a bit of cooking to become soft enough to eat. But this cooking time is flexible. I personally like the wheat berries quite chewy for a salad like this, but you can cook them until they are soft and falling apart if you like. Or you can cook them even less and have truly al dente wheat berries.
The original recipe for this salad simply specified dried fruit, but I like it with an even mix of chopped figs and golden raisins. You could substitute dates, dark raisins, apricots, or any other sweet dried fruit. The mix all works so well; in every bite you get chewy wheat berries, crisp celery and onion, rich figs and raisins, and crunchy almonds. There's the zing of lemon zest and vinegar all throughout, too — it's fruity, satisfying, and savory all at the same time.
Johnny served a small spoonful of the salad in a single cupped leaf of Belgian endive, which was a really lovely presentation; it shows off the brilliant colors of the fruit and the onion.
• More about Johnny Dornback's restaurant: Basi Italia
Winter Wheat Berry Salad with Figs & Red Onion Adapted from Johnny Dornback of Basi Italia. Serves 8
1 1/2 cups wheat berries
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1/3 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons honey*
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup dried figs, chopped finely
1/2 medium red onion (about 1/3 pound)
3 large stalks celery
1/4 cup good-quality olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon zest, from 2 lemons
1 cup roasted almonds, roughly chopped
Handful fresh parsley or mint, finely chopped
1 teaspoon flaky sea salt
Freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
Put the wheat berries in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over medium heat, then turn the heat down to low and partially cover the pot. Cook for 45 minutes, or until the wheat berries are soft yet still chewy.
While the wheat berries are cooking, whisk the rice vinegar, orange juice, and honey together in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and add the raisins and chopped figs. Turn off the heat and let the fruit steep in the juice and vinegar mixture.
Finely dice the red onion; you will end up with between 1 and 1 1/2 cups. Finely dice the celery as well; you will have between 1 1/2 and 2 cups. Mix them in a large bowl.
When the wheat berries are tender enough to be chewed easily, drain them, then pour them into the large bowl with the red onion and celery. Toss with the olive oil and lemon zest. Add the vinegar and juice mixture, and all the fruit, and mix. Toss with the almonds, chopped parsley or mint, and with the salt. Add pepper to taste.
Let the salad stand at room temperature for at least one hour before serving, to allow the flavors mix and soak into the grain. Serve warm or at room temperature.
The salad can also be refrigerated for up to three days.
* For a vegan salad, omit the honey and substitute 2 tablespoons of agave syrup.
Related: From the Files: Warm Grain Salads for Fall
(Images: Faith Durand)